A double American Awakening
Katrina Gulliver delves into two new publications entitled ‘American Awakening’, and discovers that one is an exhortation, the other an ironic description of the current process of politics and society
America has been a land of religious awakenings. The First Great Awakening happened in the 1730s and 1740s; the Second Great Awakening occurred between the 1790s and 1820s. Protestant revivals and the formation of new Evangelical groups marked Christianity in the US as fervent and dynamic in a way that it had ceased to be in the Old World. Two new books both take the title of “American Awakening”, one as an exhortation, the other as an ironic description of the current process of politics and society.
Two new books both take the title of “American Awakening”, one as an exhortation, the other as an ironic description of the current process of politics and society
Joshua Mitchell’s book regards identity politics as the awakening. “Americans have not lost their religion. Americans have relocated their religion to the realm of politics.” This is not in itself a new observation. Others have noted that identity politics, or wokeness more generally, makes faith claims upon its devotees. Mitchell frames it as a narrative of sinners and saved, or white heterosexual males as the transgressors and other groups as the innocent. Under his analysis, identity politics is a religion without God, and without forgiveness. As he describes it:
“Identity politics comprehends this invisible economy in terms of a relationship between transgression and innocence, between purportedly monovalent groups—white, heterosexual men, on the one hand; and blacks, women, persons who identify as LGBTQ, and persons who identify with still other identity groups, on the other.”
The predictable outcome of the societal “scapegoating” of white men is that some of them “eventually wonder if they, too, have been victims, and begin cataloging their own wounds.” Hence the emergence of the “men’s rights” movement, often animated by discussions online denouncing all their suffering as the fault of women and minorities.
As Mitchell points out, much of what is associated with the Alt-Right, who claim to be against identity politics, is in fact “a predictable species of identity politics, rather than an attack on it”. Figures like Richard Spencer, with their scapegoating of blacks and Jews, are just playing their own game of identity politics.
Meanwhile, the mainstream right respond to claims of historical injustice by defending tradition. In this way the historic evil of slavery is either elided, or seen as a stain washed away with the blood of the Civil War. These people tend to dislike things like The New York Times’ “1619 Project”, less for any specific historical inaccuracies, than for the fact that it puts the focus on black people at all.
But by casting whole groups as victims and villains, identity politics lays out narrow paths for partial redemption. White people can either find a way to wedge themselves into a “disadvantaged” group, or be the most vocal in denouncing other whites. One can sense the increasingly plaintive “I’m one of the Good Ones!”, from elite whites performing “antiracist ally” in public (regardless of their participation in exploitation of people of color in the rest of their lives).
Identity politics are a factor in the rediscovery of interest in one’s heritage. Look at the rush to ancestry.com or 23andMe. Deracinated white Americans seek to find an identity, and a newly traced heritage can be a godsend. This was ruthlessly mocked on South Park in 2017, as a DNA testing firm advertised to customers the chance to show they are not just “a regular white guy” but “4% Indian!” (an episode Elizabeth Warren would have done well to watch before her DNA-reveal a year later). Some play into it further, even inventing ethnic backgrounds to position themselves better in the identity landscape, as the case of Jessica Krug, a professor revealed last month to be a white woman faking an AfroCuban background.
Identity politics collapses individuals into groups, however uneasy the fit. “The professed longing of identity politics is that the voiceless be heard. The ugly truth is that identity politics silences a vast swath of humanity in order to accomplish its aim. With each extension into uncharted territory, the warriors of “inclusion” purchase their purity by besmirching a growing pool of others.” BIPOC people who aren’t on board with the program (or who indeed don’t like being called BIPOC) are also ignored. (Readers may have likewise noticed the accretion of the term “white-adjacent” for those being edged out of the tent of the elect).
Mitchell is pessimistic about the road we are going down: “there is no forgiveness of transgression in the world of identity politics. Forgiveness discharges a debt. In the world identity politics constructs, political power accretes from debts that cannot be discharged. To forgive is therefore to lose hold on political power.”
I would take the longer view however, and suggest that human society has ALWAYS been a version of identity politics. We just kidded ourselves that it wasn’t for a few decades. In the early United States, it was white Protestants who were the elect. And who could, in their benevolence, extend membership of the saved to other groups (various European immigrant groups gradually slid into the majority, under the label of “white”). The price of admission was assimilation.
But Mitchell goes further than simply analysing identity politics. He describes how the societal adjustments of which it is a symptom have further impact. The societal fracturing is undermining the pulling-together we need for greater challenges. He focuses on environmentalism: “If we are not stewards of nature first, and during each day of our lives, no array of governmental constraints and stipulations—set to kick in decades from now—is going to save the planet.”
Indeed, one of Mitchell’s key messages is the state will not save you.
John Kingston is also not arguing for the state to save you. Rather that we must save ourselves. His book begins with him heading off before college for a year of travelling around the US. Hitchhiking, sleeping in men’s hostels or on benches, this year of discovery seems to have given him a stronger understanding of himself and his goals, and he returns to lessons he learned in this part-memoir, part self-help guide.
Kingston has lived the American Dream. He rose from a working class background to an Ivy League education, law school, corporate success. His diagnosis of society’s problems is also hardly new: internet disinformation, the loss of social ties, drug abuse, atomisation. He attempted to address some of these by getting involved in politics. Recognising that both presidential candidates in 2016 were polarising, he founded Better for America, a group established to support an independent candidate for the Presidency. He even tried to run for office himself, suffering a fairly humiliating primary defeat for a senate seat in Massachusetts.
He is open about this, and about other crises in his life (a stroke, marital strife), and offers solutions based on his experience. Some of it is Robert Fulghum-esque – it is hardly original that we should make an effort to know our neighbours – but Kingston has shown himself willing to try to make a difference. Kingston is open and engaging, and has clearly had an interesting life. He has applied his lawyer skills of analysis to highlight ideas, and taken time to explore them. He is more optimistic than Mitchell, that individuals can right the ship of society, and work together.
Kingston even touches on identity politics, through his description of awkward exchanges in his social group (what might be called microaggressions) and how they were addressed. These small scale interventions are part of Mitchell’s narrative too: that we must relate to the individuals around us and not see them as group members. Mitchell managed to write a pandemic-related addendum before the book’s release, and he acutely points out the striation of the haves and have-nots, between “those who profess the universal benevolence of a worldwide quarantine”, yet expect Others not to quarantine, in order to deliver their food and supplies. When push comes to shove, the saved are the elite: no surprises there.
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